In the mid- to late-1980s, I was working in the radio industry as the music director at an Album Oriented Rock (AOR) station in North Carolina. While the music we played was the opposite of what was occurring on the Top 40 or Urban stations (I would have said polar opposite, but we weren’t country music), we were still aware of the rumbles of change that thundered across the musical spectrum. I actually got behind two bands in my time there – one was Faith No More with their song “Epic” and the other was the band that term – thundered – was the best way to explain: the phenomenon that was the rap group N.W.A.
N.W.A. – the seminal rap group that featured Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Lorenzo ‘”MC Ren” Patterson and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby – exploded on the scene in 1988 with their debut album Straight Outta Compton. The album contained explicit descriptions from the group about life in the inner city (in this case, the Los Angeles subdivision known as Compton) and, in particular, the trials and tribulations that faced black men (and, as a sidelight, the black community) at that time. With the movie of the same name opening up today, it is easy to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The year was 1988 when N.W.A. came out and it gave voice to millions that had never had even a face to that time. Previous rap music, although occasionally containing a strong message (in fact, “The Message” from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was one of the first rap songs about how difficult life was in the inner city), was more about the party in most cases (“Rapper’s Delight” from the Sugarhill Gang or “Fight For Your Right” from the Beastie Boys) or a cover tune (“Walk This Way” from Run DMC). It also owed more to old school R&B and disco than any other musical format, with base tracks from songs like Chic’s “Good Times” or perhaps Parliament/Funkadelic providing the bottom layer that rappers would lay their tracks over.
With N.W.A., all bets were off. Their guttural bass notes came at the listener like a thunderbolt and guitars and other sound effects were utilized to bring the city to life on the tracks. But what was the major difference was the lyrics. Not content to simply talk about the activities at a party or the sexual conquests that the MC had the previous evening, N.W.A. broadcasted straight from the street and what the residents of the inner city faced throughout their daily lives: harassment from law enforcement, drug usage and addiction, rampant crime and other less-than enjoyable aspects of living in the inner city.
The advent of N.W.A. brought about the “gangsta” rap style that covered the remainder of the 1980s and stretched into the early 2000s. Although the group that was N.W.A. didn’t make it deep (the band broke up in 1991 and reunited for a short time in 1998), Young and Jackson would go on to long careers in music (Young is now a billionaire after founding Beats by Dre) and/or acting (Jackson is well-sought as a performer in both film and television). Wright would unfortunately pass from AIDS in 1995 and Patterson and Carraby carried on in music, without the same impact as their days with N.W.A.
With the movie coming out today, there is a focus placed once again on N.W.A. and the music that they delivered. As someone who had been around the block even then, I knew that the message that N.W.A. was delivering was dead on, shining a spotlight on a situation that isn’t talked about at formal dinner parties. What is starkly evident from listening back to such artists as N.W.A. today is that there isn’t much different between the situation then and now.
When Eazy-E, Dre and Ice laid down the raps about being harassed by law enforcement for simply being in a certain area and a certain color, those situation still are a part of the headlines today. Crack cocaine usage ravaged the inner city during the times of N.W.A.; today, it is heroin, alcohol and crack that take their toll. Education isn’t any better today than then, it may in fact be worse. Housing continues to be an issue and many believe the only path to “getting out” of the inner city is through athletics or music. And this is only scratching the surface of the situation.
The solutions to these issues aren’t easy and, in many cases, cost money that seemingly isn’t there anymore (according to politicians). When an inner-city kid has the same access to educational materials as someone at the best suburban school, we’ll have made progress. Housing could be improved, but the lack of land still would require the high-rise apartment complexes that are prominent in Chicago and New York. Drug usage and the actions of law enforcement are perhaps the most difficult in that no amount of money would change the situation; the only thing that will change those things are attitudes regarding drug criminalization and training of future police officers.
If you’re heading to the movieplex this weekend to see Straight Outta Compton this weekend, marvel at how these young men brought a cultural situation into the glaring light of the world. Then lament how we haven’t been able to change anything since N.W.A. first rapped about these situations. The more things change, the more they stay the same…